October 19, 2010
Kindergarten.Snack-time.Children quietly convey Chex mix softly rattling across paper plates to their desks.And the one with a wooden chair on her head, a cup half-filled with orange juice balanced on the seat, dancing the Steve Martin “wild and crazy guys” shimmy?That’d be me.Minutes before, I’d told some joke the other kids laughed at.It was all the encouragement I needed to spring my inner funny on them full tilt, let loose and be the me I was at home, the me who invented the make-the-corpse-laugh game and kept a rubber-worm fishing lure in a box with holes cut in it.What could be funnier than that?Except maybe a five-year-old shimmying with a chair on her head balancing a cup of orange juice.
But no one was laughing.I didn’t notice this at first because I was busy whooping it up with my eyes scrunched shut. Then I opened them just enough to see Mrs. Kelly from between the chair struts, closing in fast.She snatched the juice, the chair, and then walked me out into the hallway with her hand clamped down on my shoulder.The lesson I learned while swooshing spit in my cheeks, whiling away my time in solitary confinement: when you try this hard to elicit one very particular emotion from your audience it just doesn’t work.
This is the very reason I’ve never been a big fan of contemporary horror movies, and it’s not for a lack of watching them.I’ve seen the Nightmare on Elm Streets and Halloweens and Screams and Saws and what have you.I give everything a fair shake.But instead of experiencing the stories in a way that could make me genuinely scared by them, all I can usually focus on is the huge effort put forth to frighten.The second I feel blatantly manipulated I cross my arms in resistance.What can I say?I’m a hard sell when it comes to horror. But since I also fancy myself a juice-balancing, chair-wearing life of the party, I can’t very well denounce this mainstay of Halloween festivities entirely.So I’m offering a sort of compromise, a list of five eerie not-necessarily-horror films on behalf of horror-movie deriders everywhere.
Guillermo del Toro’s twisted fairytale set in the chaos of Spain’s civil war made me wish I had a magic piece of chalk with which to draw a doorway to my happy place.The loping, snapping-jawed creature with the eyeballs in his palms still stalks my dreams.I’ve named him Bill.
I first learned of Wladislaw Starewicz from one of the Fantastic Mr. Fox animators, Brad Schiff, who included Starewicz on a list of stop-motion animators serving as inspiration for director Wes Anderson. There’s nothing creepier than seeing vintage footage of cockroaches packing a suitcase or taxidermy cats playing a mandolin through the eyes of someone who didn’t find it creepy at all.
Choose any one of Darren Aronofsky’s films if you’d like to be artfully disturbed, but I choose his first feature-length effort, Pi, because nothing scares me more than math.I really need no explanation as to why lead character Max, plagued by mind-bending equations, wants to drill a hole in his head.
My daughter was once so afraid of buttons I’d have to snip them off her clothes before she’d wear them.“They have a … buttony smell,” she’d say, her nose crinkled in horror.Imagine her delight at seeing the button-eyed Other Mother in Henry Selick’s adaptation of Gaiman’s Coraline! She didn’t sleep for days.In fact, you don’t have to fear buttons, nor be seven years old, to find Coraline unsettling in the best of ways.
I showed this Mel Brooks classic to a group of students once, and on more than one occasion they turned to find me laughing until no sound came out and my mouth went perfectly dry.“How many times have you seen this, and you still find it that funny?” one of them asked me.Oh yeah. There are a handful of movies that definitively prove I’m still six (the age at which I first saw this movie when I probably shouldn’t have), and this is easily one of them.
Bonus Lightning Round:The Crow, Rebecca, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The Others, and Let the Right One In.